“This isn’t going to end well,” Adam Driver says more than once in “The Dead Don’t Die,” the Jim Jarmusch zombie movie that opened the Cannes Film Festival on Tuesday. And when Ken Loach’s “Sorry We Missed You” premiered on Thursday in Cannes, opening with a scene in which an out-of-work laborer is hired for a job that seems to have lots of strings attached, it’s hard not to think that Driver’s gloomy forecast will hold true in this setting as well.
But it’s not zombies who make the prospects so bleak for the characters in “Sorry We Missed You.” Rather, it’s the plight of the British working class, which in many Loach movies is under constant assault from larger forces — sometimes the forces of government, sometimes the forces of commerce, sometimes a brutal mixture that serves to batter and dehumanize the average worker.
“Sorry We Missed You” takes Loach’s usual concerns and paints them in broad, thick strokes; it’s occasionally an understated character study, more often a blunt and angry polemic about the ways in which good people can be beaten down. This is the kind of movie in which the camera moves down a working-class street, and the dog who’s being walked only has three legs.
In other words, it is not a subtle film, and its bluntness is occasionally potent but just as often wearying.
Loach comes to Cannes in an enviable position but also an odd one. Along with the Dardenne brothers’ “Young Ahmed,” “Sorry We Missed You” is one of the two main-competition entries that could set a new record by winning a third Palme d’Or for its director, following Loach’s wins for “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” in 2006 and “I, Daniel Blake” in 2016.
But that last win was not a popular one at the time, and it has not aged well. While “I, Daniel Blake” is an affecting drama with a pair of standout performances at its center, it also felt laborious at times, and was such a typically earnest piece of Loach’s working-class agitation that it didn’t stand out in a year that included such bracing Cannes films as “Toni Erdmann,” “American Honey,” “Personal Shopper” and “Paterson.”
Granted, Alejandro G. Inarritu’s jury this year probably won’t care much what George Miller’s jury did in 2016, and it’s unfair to hold “I, Daniel Blake” (which was, after all, a good film) against “Sorry We Missed You.” But only three years after his last Palme winner, it’s hard to find much that’s fresh about Loach’s new film, no matter how effective a polemic it may sometimes be.
As usual for Loach, the protagonist is a working-class man struggling to get by. In this case, it’s Ricky (Kris Hitchen), a father of two who is drowning in debt and out of work when he’s offered a position as a delivery driver. The catch, which is presented as an opportunity by his new boss, is that he won’t be an employee — he’ll be self-employed, which puts him on the hook for all sorts of potentially debilitating financial and personal consequences.
Ricky’s wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood) is similarly overburdened in her job as a caregiver for the elderly and infirm; together, the two can barely find the time to be with their own children, a troubled teen graffiti artist and a young girl traumatized by what’s happening to her family.
It’s a Loach film, which means the performances feel natural and lived-in, even when things around them get a little preachy. (An old woman proudly showing off her scrapbook from the 1984 miners’ strike is a particularly Loachian interlude.)
But while the heart of “I, Daniel Blake” was in the affecting performances by Dave Johns and Hayley Squires, Hitchen and Honeywood are game but have a hard time registering as much more than symbols of how brutalized the working class is – though she cuts through the increasingly melodramatic tone of the film with a profane diatribe that drew applause from the normally jaded Cannes press corps.
Loach works effectively in this arena, and “Sorry We Missed You” is certainly timely in the era of worldwide economic uncertainly. It struggles, though, to feel as though it’s anything but a veteran director going over familiar turf without finding anything particularly new to say.